18 June, 2010

Staff Nullification - And What To Do About It

A lot has been written about abusive or bullying managers but, as far as I can tell, very little has been written about a form of bullying and professional sabotage in which subordinates conspire to undermine an unpopular boss or co-worker until the victim quits or gets fired.

Terms like “office politics”, “bullying” and “professional sabotage”, though accurate, are too imprecise and too general for the behavior I’m describing so I’m going to offer a term: “staff nullification”. When a jury doesn’t like a law and, in effect, overturns that law by ignoring evidence and issuing a verdict different from the verdict demanded by the evidence and the law we call it “jury nullification”. Similarly, when staff conspires to, in effect, overturn the hiring or promotion decisions of management by sabotaging that new hire or new manager’s effectiveness, I call this “staff nullification”.

If executive management tolerates staff nullification once it will happen again and again. So-called “revolving door” jobs are often the result of such staff nullification. It’s a form of “managing the boss” and it doesn’t take long for even low-wage, non-exempt employees to figure out how to get rid of a boss or co-worker they don’t like.

In an environment where staff has learned how to overturn hiring decisions or promotions, the non-exempt employees have typically been together for a long time. They socialize outside of work. They often attend the same church. They have kids who play on the same Little League or go to the same school. In departments that practice staff nullification and the overturning of unpopular hiring decisions, it’s not uncommon to find that conspirators are distantly related either by blood or by marriage.

The unpopular new co-worker or new boss is an outsider. The outsider is often of a different race, different gender, different religion, or different sexual orientation – characteristics that should have no impact whatsoever on an employee’s success or failure in the workplace.

New hires who are perceived to be on a fast track to management are often suffocated in the crib, so to speak.

It’s easy for the insiders to isolate and nullify or cancel the outsider. Information is withheld from the outsider. When the outsider makes a mistake nobody tells the outsider what he’s doing wrong but the insiders make sure executive management knows. Rumors are started. It doesn’t take long for the ostracized, illegitimated victim to quit or get fired.

If you are a manager, executive or owner in a company where promotions and new hires are overturned through staff nullification, there’s a simple solution: make the success of the team a component in individual performance reviews.

Write up and pass around a new performance review template that gives great weight to showing leadership in the onboarding and success of co-workers. Make a little speech about what the desired behavior looks like. Make it clear that employees who are unable or unwilling to show leadership in onboarding and helping co-workers succeed will be passed over for promotions and pay raises. If you see role model behavior in the area of onboarding and assuring the success of co-workers, make a big deal out of it by somehow recognizing the employee who exemplified the role model behavior.

We already do it with corporate bonuses. When I worked for a Fortune 400 behemoth, our annual bonuses were dependent upon a number of components. It wasn’t enough that the corporation reached its profit goals. Departments had to meet certain performance goals, too. Departments that didn’t deliver projects on time didn’t share in the bonus pie.

Tie individual performance to team or departmental success. Make it clear to every employee that helping other team members succeed is everybody’s business and that employees who show the greatest leadership in helping their co-workers succeed will get the biggest pay raises and promotions.


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